Drug addiction is by no means a new problem, and unfortunately, it remains a prevalent one. The drug-induced mortality rate in Ireland remains exceedingly high, at 69 deaths per million in 2015. More broadly, Ireland has historically one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe.
In this interview, I talk with Dr Sean Foy – Director of The Learning Curve Institute, Ireland’s leading specialist trainer in mental health and addiction. He shares with me his story and his influences, as well as how he envisages the future of mental health and addiction evolving in Ireland. Being in the field for over twenty-five years, every day for Dr Foy is still “a learning day”.
What were the main influences drawing you into the world of psychotherapy?
I initially began work with people experiencing homelessness in London approximately 30 years ago. I was always interested in therapy and I was able to avail of my own personal therapy, which helped me a lot, so I was interested. Throughout my work I was keen to learn as much as I possibly could to try and be a better worker, so initially I was a project worker, then a social worker, psychotherapist, and finally a clinical psychologist. Psychotherapy was a natural part of that journey.
Are those the same influences which keep you in the field today? How have they evolved?
Well, yes, I read Yalom and a great many others who all impacted on my work. Insoo Kim Berg (Solution Focused Brief Therapy) and Bill Miller (Motivational Interviewing) were and are big influencers on my practice. I work a lot in addiction and I truly love it. I have never tired of it and each day is a learning day. I love my job.
What was the journey like that led you to being director of the Learning Curve Institute?
I was providing training to different organisations when I relocated from the UK to Ireland and setting up the institute was a natural progression for us. I work with a fantastic team of trainers who all are working in the field. We are a QQI accrediated provider and all of the team are passionate about their work.
What are some of the greatest learning curves you have faced working with mental health and addiction?
Working with dual diagnosis has been challenging and very rewarding. Unfortunately, the level of service a person received can be dependent on their health cover and where they live. The greatest learning curve I have experienced when working with dual diagnosis is that some people in professions literally cannot see the whole person; a person who has a dual diagnosis needs a service but sometimes workers or agencies may argue over what the primary issue is, this is heartbreaking. Best way to deal with this is to hold workers and agencies to account and advocating for change. This is a human rights issue. No doubt.
How do you perceive current attitudes in Ireland towards addiction?
I feel things are changing but there is still a lot of shame and stigma attached to the issue. We are better than we were 20 years ago but we have a long way to go. There will be a supervised injecting facility in Dublin and this I believe signifies a more pragmatic approach to the issue but there can be, on occasion, a lot of ignorance and in some cases scare mongering, which can affect public opinion, which can in turn change the direction of government on these issues.
Since working in this field, are there any experiences you could tell us about which you found particularly memorable or striking?
There are literally hundreds, but one that stuck with me was when I was working in a “wet” service where people are allowed to consume alcohol on the premises,
I was just learning solution focused brief therapy, and although I liked it, I felt it just would not work with the client group I was working with at that time (alcohol dependent men and women). I was challenged in class to ask the miracle question from one of my clients. I did, and it blew me away.
The guy was from Glasgow, he had been homeless for over 20 years and had not been home in approximately 12 years. His miracle was that he would wake up in his mother’s house in Glasgow (he would go home). Long story short, he achieved this approximately ten days later. We had never asked him such a question, and when we did, he knew what he would like to happen. That interaction has stayed with me.
Who or what are your main influences in the world of mental health and addiction treatment and research?
For mental health: John Read, Jeffery Mason, Elyn R Saks, Michael Garrett, Marius Romme,
For addiction: Bill Miller, Andrew Tartarsky, Pat Denning, Scott Miller, Insoo Kim berg, Dr Carl Hart, Robert J Meyers, Alan Marlatt, Jim Orford, Audrey Kishline, Stanton Peele,
There are literally hundreds more for both sections. But I don’t want to bore you..!
Research is showing that since the pandemic, drug overdoses are soaring. What are your feelings on this? Why do you think this is?
I think it is devastating, and I feel it may be down to three main things:
1) Isolation due to COVID
2) Money issues due to the pandemic
3) Disruptions to the drug trade
All of these are creating a situation where overdoses are increasing. Simply trying to access services in a pandemic is extremely challenging.
Do you live in Ireland? How do you understand the current mental health and addiction climate?